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Beside the sarcophagus, very erect as if to compensate for the lack of light, stood a young woman in black, her hair drawn severely back.
The soldiers bowed their heads to her and murmured her name.
Violante. The Adderhead’s daughter. She was still known as Her Ugliness, although the birthmark that had earned her the name was only a faint shadow on her cheek now it had begun to fade, people said, on the day when Cosimo came back from the dead. Only to return there soon.
What a nickname. How did she live with it? But Violante’s Subjects used it with affection. Rumor had it that she secretly had leftovers from the princely kitchen taken to the starving villages by night, and fed those in need in Ombra by selling silverware and horses from the princely stables, even when the Milksop punished her for it by shutting her up in her rooms for days on end. She spoke up for those condemned to death and taken off to the gallows and for those who vanished into dungeons — even though no one listened to her. Violante was powerless in her own castle, as the Black Prince had told Mo often enough. Even her son didn’t do as she told him, but the Milksop was afraid of her all the same, for she was still his immortal brother-in-law’s daughter.
Why had they brought him to her, here in the place where her dead husband lay at rest? Did she want to earn the price put on the Bluejay’s head before the Milksop could claim it?
"Does he have the scar?" She didn’t take her eyes off his face.
One of the soldiers took an awkward step toward Mo, but he pushed up his sleeve, just as the little girl had the night before. The scar left by the teeth of Basta’s dogs long ago, in another life — Fenoglio had made a story out of it, and sometimes Mo felt as if the old man had drawn the scar on his skin with his own hands, in pale ink.
Violante came up to him. The heavy fabric of her dress trailed on the stone floor. She was really small, a good deal smaller than Meggie. When she put her hand to the embroidered pouch at her belt Mo expected to see the beryl that Meggie had told him about, but Violante took out a pair of glasses. Ground glass lenses, a gold frame Orpheus’s glasses must have been the model for this pair. It couldn’t have been easy to find a master capable of grinding such lenses.
"Yes, indeed. The famous scar. A giveaway." The glasses enlarged Violante’s eyes.
They were not like her father’s. "So Balbulus was right. Do you know that my father has raised the price on your head yet again?"
Mo hid the scar under his sleeve once more. "Yes, I heard about that."
"But you came here to see Balbulus’s pictures all the same. I like that. Obviously, what the songs say about you is true: You don’t know what fear is; maybe you even love danger."
She looked him up and down as thoroughly as if she were comparing him with the man in the pictures. But when he returned her glance she blushed — whether out of embarrassment or anger because he ventured to look her in the face, Mo couldn’t have said. She turned abruptly, went over to her husband’s tomb, and ran her fingers over the stone roses as delicately as if she were trying to bring them to life.
"I would have done exactly the same in your place. I’ve always thought we were like each other. Ever since I heard the first song about you from the strolling players. This world breeds misfortune like a pond breeds midges, but it’s possible to fight back.
We both know that. I was already stealing gold from the taxes in the treasury before anyone sang those songs about you. For a new infirmary, a beggars’ refuge, or somewhere for orphans to go . . . I just made sure that one of the administrators was suspected of stealing the gold. They all deserve to hang anyway.
How defiantly she tilted her chin as she turned back to him. Almost the way Meggie sometimes did. She seemed very old and very Young at the same time. What was she planning? Would she hand him over to her father, to feed the poor with the price On his head, or so that she could buy enough parchment and paints for Balbulus at last?
Everyone knew that she had even pawned her wedding ring to buy him brushes.
Well, what Could be more suitable? thought Mo. A bookbinder’s skin, sold for flew books.
One of the soldiers was still standing right behind him. The other two were guarding the door, obviously the only way out of the vault. Three. There were only three of them.
"I know all the songs about you. I had them written down." The eyes behind the lenses in her glasses were gray and curiously light. As if you could see that they weren’t very strong. They certainly didn’t resemble the Adderhead’s lizardlike eyes.
She must have inherited them from her mother. The book in which Death was held captive had been bound in the room where she and her ugly little daughter used to live after they fell into disfavor. Did Violante still remember that room? Surely she did.
"The new songs aren’t very good," she went on, "but Balbulus makes up for that with his pictures. Now that my father’s made the Milksop lord of this castle, Balbulus usually works on them at night, and I keep the books with me so that they don’t get sold like all the others. I read them when the Milksop is making merry in the great hall. I read them out loud so that the words will drown out all that noise: the drunken bawling, the silly laughter, Tullio crying when they’ve been chasing him again. . . .
And every word fills my heart with hope, the hope that you will stand there in the hall someday, with the Black Prince at your side, and kill them all. One by one.
While I stand beside you with my feet in their blood."
Violante’s soldiers didn’t move a muscle. They seemed to be used to hearing such words in their mistress’s mouth.
She took a step toward him. "I’ve had people searching for you ever since I heard from my father’s men that you were in hiding on this side of the forest. I wanted to find you before they did, but you’re good at staying out of sight. No doubt the fairies and brownies hide you, as the songs say, and the moss-women heal your wounds.. .
Mo couldn’t help it. He had to smile. For a moment Violante’s face had reminded him so much of Meggie’s when she was telling one of her favorite stories.
"Why do you smile?" Violante frowned, and for a moment he glimpsed the Adderhead in her light eyes. Careful, Mortimer. "Oh, I know. You’re thinking: She’s only a woman, hardly more than a girl. She has no power, no husband, no soldiers.
You’re right, most of my soldiers lie dead in the forest because my husband was in too much of a hurry to go to war against my father. But I’m not so stupid! ‘Balbulus,’
I said, ‘spread word that you’re looking for a new bookbinder. Perhaps we’ll find the Bluejay that way. If what Taddeo said is true, he’ll come just to see your pictures.
And then, when he’s in my castle, my prisoner, just as he was once a prisoner in the Castle of Night, I’ll ask him to help me kill my immortal father."
Violante’s lips smiled in amusement as Mo looked sideways at her soldiers. "Don’t look so anxious! My soldiers are devoted to me. My father’s men killed their brothers and fathers in the Wayless Wood!"
"Your father won’t be immortal for very much longer." The words came from Mo’s lips unthinkingly; he hadn’t meant to speak them aloud. Idiot, he told himself Have you forgotten who this is facing you, just because something about her reminds you of Your daughter?